By Mark Viviano

With 15 games remaining in the 2011 MLB regular season, the Orioles have clinched last place in the American League East for the 4th straight season.  Big deal, they’ve been falling hard since June so the thud of the division basement was coming sooner or later.  But the sobering reality the O’s face isn’t that they’ve been buried by the mega-monied Yankees and Red Sox.  No, the story is (again) the Tampa Bay Rays.  There’s no point in even mentioning New York and Boston when the Rays are in the room with their $40 million dollar payroll, breathing down the Red Sox necks in pursuit of a wild card spot.

For comparisons sake, the Yankees payroll is about $202 million, Boston is $162 million and the O’s are paying out about $85 million.  The Rays came into this season having slashed $30 million from their payroll, and that includes getting rid of their 7 highest players.  For my money- the Tampa Bay Rays are THE story in Major League Baseball.  Not the feel-good resurgence of Cleveland and Pittsburgh this season.  It’s the Rays being a consistent contender in the so-called unfair, un-winnable A.L. East.

Andy MacPhail has said it for years:  the Rays have removed any excuse the Orioles may have about an uneven economic playing field.  I know MacPhail has his detractors these days, but how can you argue with him on this one? Tampa Bay spends a fraction of the money and outperforms more than two-thirds of the league.  How do they do it?  They draft well, they develop talented, young (inexpensive players), they put a premium on young pitching, and they are persistent in the process of having the next crop coming up when the current crop gets too good and becomes unaffordable (example: Carl Crawford out,  Desmond Jennings in). Incredibly, the Rays pull off their annual magic act in a mostly-empty ballpark.  They rank 29th of 30 teams in attendance.  Tampa Bay’s general manager is Andrew Friedman.  Ray’s owner Stuart Sternberg referred to his GM as an underdog who loves climbing mountains and has done it with one-hand tied behind his back.  What he has done and continues to do is amazing if not stunning.

Meanwhile, it’s 4 straight last place finishes for the O’s.  The mountain the O’s are climbing is only steeper.  And it has little or nothing to do with the Yankees and Red Sox who are above the cloud line and out of sight.  It’s the Tampa Bay Rays:  lean and mean, pound for pound the best in all of baseball.

Posted by Mark Viviano

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